The best tech of 2020: Pixel 4a, Galaxy Buds Live and more

(CNN) —  

It’d be an understatement to say that 2020 has been an eventful year — both in the tech world and, you know, overall. This year has truly been jam-packed with new gadgets and gizmos.

The first half of the year was highlighted by the affordable iPhone SE, the booming Sonos Arc, Dell continuing its quest to remove bezels and a phone with 100x zoom. And companies didn’t stop in the second half — from August until about a week ago we had new devices. Samsung dropped four smartphones, two tablets and earbuds in two months. Notably, Apple held three separate events for new Apple Watches, iPads, iPhones and the Mac. Amazon had its usual showcase, which capitalized on a spherical trend, and Google pushed what AI could do.

So with 2020 drawing to a close shortly, we figured it’s time to take a look back and declare our favorite tech of the year.

While Apple isn’t exactly known for its affordability, the company bucked that trend when it launched the iPhone SE, the most affordable iPhone at $399. That’s notable in and of itself, but Apple spoiled us further by giving it the same speeds and buttery smoothness as the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, which is why it’s our favorite smartphone of 2020 and our pick for a midrange device.

The Pixel 4a is an affordable but still solid phone from Google. It has the same main lens as the Pixel 4, which means photos look stunning, with an immense amount of detail, and it features Night Sight for photography in lower-light conditions. It’s available in just one color (black) and one size (5.81 inches), housed in a polycarbonate build. It has a midrange Qualcomm processor inside and is running a clean version of Android. In our testing, it performed really well. For most people, it’s a terrific phone that doesn’t break the bank — and it’s the best midrange Android phone.

We knew foldable smartphones would be a big talking point for 2020, and we got a strong showing with Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip. To put it bluntly: It’s leagues better than the Motorola Razr (which really just has nostalgia going for it). It not only proved that this compact vertical foldable design was feasible, but it made some strong use cases for it. We love how the Z Flip can stop and hold a right angle, which is great for video calls and for capturing timelapses. It also has dual cameras on the front, and we can’t get enough of the Mirror Purple color.

Sonos Arc

Sonos had a really rough start to 2020 with the legacy product debacle, essentially announcing that some devices wouldn’t be supported and would be bricked, and then walking back on almost all of it. Even so, new hardware from Sonos has been top-notch. The $799 Arc is not the most affordable soundbar on the block, but it really packs a punch with sound and design: At 45 inches long, it comes in your choice of matte black or white, and it packs 11 speakers inside. You can hear low, mid and high notes clearly, and the bass is surprisingly powerful. It’s room-filling for music, movies and even reality TV.

The first MacBook Air refresh of 2020 gave us the Magic Keyboard, a much-needed improvement. But the second update was truly groundbreaking. Apple’s first silicon chips are here, and the M1 inside the MacBook Air just flies. In our review, we noted that it set a new standard and delivered performance that puts the entry-level Apple laptop in a new category. The M1 MacBook Air can handle 4K video editing, batch photo editing, any productivity tools and even some games. It’s just an incredible value and sets the bar very high for future chips. Remember, the M1 chip is the first Apple-made Mac chip.

Michael Andronico/CNN

The Dell XPS 13 was already a near-perfect laptop, but Dell found a way to make it even better for 2020. The latest version of the XPS 13 packs a four-sided InfinityEdge display, shaving off the chunky bottom bezel from last year’s model for a truly immersive 13.4-inch screen that bursts with color and detail. That’s on top of smaller refinements to this best-in-class notebook, including a larger touchpad and a wonderfully comfortable keyboard that now stretches from edge to edge. And with Intel’s new 11th-gen processors inside, the latest Dell XPS 13 is as powerful and long-lasting as it is gorgeously compact.

We dubbed it the “kitchen sink phone” for the sheer amount of features Samsung threw into it, and the S20 Ultra is a beast of a smartphone that checks off the boxes for a flagship. For $1,400, you get a 6.9-inch vibrant display, four cameras, a zippy processor and 5G support. The tech still needs to mature a bit, and even after several updates we’d like to see a few more. But even so, the S20 Ultra is a cutting-edge flagship, and if it can give us hints at what’s to come from flagships later this year, we’re certainly amped up.

Yes, nostalgia is still a thing in 2020, and Lego hit a gold mine with its most recent set. The Nintendo Entertainment System Building Kit isn’t cheap at $229.99, but you can literally build a Lego version of one of the original gaming systems. And Nintendo didn’t stop there. You also build the controllers, the game cartridge and an ‘80s-style TV with a working Super Mario Bros. course.

Amazon is definitely on to something with its spherical smart speakers. The fourth-gen Echo stood out in our review, and in our long-term testing it wound up being the best smart speaker overall. It’s still the classic Alexa experience, with far-field microphones that can accurately pick up your voice. The real change for 2020 was a circular build that allows more room for audio to be created. Sadly, though, it’s no longer an omnidirectional speaker — sound just comes out the front, but it still gets plenty loud.

We knew Samsung’s bean-shaped earbuds were coming; we just had no idea they’d perform so well. The Buds Live simply pop into your ears and stay there. A wing on the top of each bud helps to hold them in place, while the bottom faces the ear canal but doesn’t go into it. This fit ensures the buds have a front row seat to the eardrums to pump up the tunes. Audio was rich and crisp, and open active noise cancellation blocks out a decent amount of outside sound. These also pack a punch with great battery life and an awesome array of colors to choose from.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra fixes nearly all of our qualms with the S20 Ultra and is $100 cheaper (at full price). You don’t get 100x Space Zoom, but rather a clearer and, quite frankly, less gimmicky 50x zoom. There are three versatile lenses on the back that let this device become your main shooter. The main display is a stunning, massive 6.9-inch AMOLED screen that supports a 120 Hz motion refresh rate. For $1,300, you’re getting an incredibly powerful phone.

Out of the four flagship iPhones this year, the iPhone 12 really hits the sweet spot. It builds on the foundation the iPhone 11 put in place but delivers a modern design with an OLED screen. The latter is a necessity for 2020 and creates an immersive picture that’s highlighted with vibrant colors. It’s powered by an A14 Bionic chip that is really fast and will deliver zippy performance for many years. That chip also enhances the camera experience — the hardware is still a 12-megapixel wide and 12-megapixel ultrawide set of lenses, though. The iPhone 12 is no longer the entry point for the flagships (that’s the 12 Mini), but it sure feels like the sweet spot.

Of all the new consoles released this year, the PS5 is the one that truly feels like the start of a new generation. Its innovative DualSense controller allows you to feel the tension of a bow and arrow or the resistance of a gust of wind like never before, thanks to advanced haptics and adaptive triggers that add a new layer of immersion. Its lightning-fast SSD makes long loading times a thing of the past, allowing you to load into a massive open-world Manhattan or hop between fantasy realms in literal seconds. These features only heighten the PS5’s killer overall performance, which allows games to render in beautiful 4K resolution and run at a smooth 60 frames per second. Factor in a solid launch library headlined by Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls as well as full PS4 backward compatibility, and it’s easy to see why Sony’s new console is nearly impossible to find on shelves.

Brittany Vincent/CNN

Whereas the PS5 goes for revolution, the Xbox Series X is more of an evolution — and that’s not a bad thing at all. Microsoft’s next-gen console might function a lot like the Xbox One, but its blistering 12 teraflops of graphics muscle bring new life to games like Gears 5 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, thanks to stunning 4K visuals and smooth frame rates as high as 120 frames per second. And unlike the PS5, the Xbox Series X plays nearly two decades’ worth of games, with comprehensive backward compatibility that includes Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One titles. We also love the Series X’s sleek, understated look that’s designed for optimal cooling, and the handy Quick Resume feature that lets you bounce between multiple games within seconds. Add the incredible value Xbox Game Pass to the mix, and you have an awesomely powerful console that plays four generations’ worth of great games — even if it doesn’t have its killer next-gen app just yet.

Michael Andronico/CNN

The Oculus Quest 2 improves on an already great product, making high-quality VR more affordable and hassle-free than ever. This fully standalone VR headset lets you get lost in great virtual reality games and experiences without the need for any wires, sensors or a powerful PC — just strap it on, set up your play area and you’re good to go. The Quest 2’s game library is bursting with top-tier titles, whether you want to break a sweat in the rhythm-action of Beat Saber, engage in slow-motion shootouts in Superhot VR or feel like a Jedi Knight in Vader Immortal. And at a time when many of us are stuck at home, the Quest 2’s apps and entertainment library lets you explore Mount Everest, get front row seats at a concert and hang out with friends in virtual spaces. Plus, with a more powerful processor, improved Touch Controllers and a lighter design, Oculus’ latest standalone headset makes those engrossing experiences feel that much better.

Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Watch Series 6

Jacob Krol/CNN

The Apple Watch Series 6 didn’t represent a must-upgrade for those with a Series 5 or even a Series 4, but it did cement itself as the best Apple Watch yet — an expected mark. The real twist this year was a deeper focus on health and performance on your wrist. The Series 6 can now monitor blood oxygen levels in addition to taking your heart rate, tracking movement, taking an electrocardiogram and detecting if you fall over. The display is brighter, watchOS runs faster with a new processor and battery life is improved. It’s our top pick for a smartwatch.

That’s our favorite tech of 2020, and you can bet that CNN Underscored will be tackling 2021 as soon as that clock strikes midnight.

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